HORROR MONTH #21: Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, by Francis Bacon (1953)

Type of Media: Painting

Inspiration comes from a lot of different places. For some it could be where they grew up, for others it could be a close relationship. For figurative painter Francis Bacon, inspiration came from a scream.

The scream that inspired many Francis Bacon paintings

The scream that inspired many Francis Bacon paintings

Not just any scream, mind you, but a specific scream: an image of a woman screaming, her face bloody and spectacles askew, from the 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin. Bacon kept a still of this scream in his office, and would refer to it often in his work. Most infamously, Francis Bacon painted a series of 45 paintings all derived from Spanish portraitist Diego Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, placing this scream onto the pope's face.

The result is nightmarish and, if you keep an image of the pope as sacred, blasphemous. In the original portrait, Pope Innocent X sits regally on a throne, surrounded by rich red, gold, and cream colors. Even without the title, his firm expression and surroundings tell you he's a powerful man.

Bacon's version, though, places the pope in existential agony, his body thin and stretched out, and his mouth open wide in a scream. The rich colors are gone, replaced with ghostly whites, pastel purple, and a flat gold throne with a lack of detail that seems mocking of the original. The black streaks that surround the pope suggest he's trapped in an immaterial cage, tortured by something imperceptible.

Bacon would sometimes dismiss his pope paintings in interviews, claiming they were just experiments with color. However, it's hard to ignore the symbolism in choosing a pope to place in torment. It shows the seat of power as a prison, inescapable due to its responsibility and necessity. It's sacrilegious, keeping with Bacon's avowed atheism and placing him against his likely-Catholic Irish countrymen. It turns a historic portrait that was once grand into something that looks like a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book cover.

Art historians still can't pin down why Francis Bacon was drawn to the image of that woman from Battleship Potemkin screaming. Google Bacon's paintings and you'll see that expression over and over and over again. He was gay in a time when that wasn't tolerated, he harbored deep-seated insecurities from his childhood, and he lived to excess, so maybe he was reproducing the pain he felt onto others, or revealing the suffering that hides in all of us. Regardless, he leaves behind a legacy of figures doomed to sit and silently scream for all eternity.